With $3 Million Grant, Researchers Hope to Help Find Sites to Grow Tomorrow’s Produce

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Senthold Asseng

By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida (UF) researchers are sounding a warning bell that fresh produce may be hard to come by in the future. Scientists with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) cite changes in our climate, loss of fresh water and competition for resources as major threats in farmers’ ability to increase production of fruits and vegetables.

With a new $3 million federal grant, Senthold Asseng, a UF/IFAS professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and scientist David Gustafson, of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Research Foundation, will lead a four-year research project to find more places to grow produce.

The grant, announced July 19, comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Through this type of collaborative research, we discover the scientific answers that help solve world hunger problems,” said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “Knowing where and how to grow crops goes a long way to feeding as many people as possible while conserving our environment.”

To try to deal with the production conundrum, Asseng, Gustafson and a team of leading scientists from the International Food Policy Research Institute, University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, Washington State University and the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services will use crop, environmental, economic and climate modeling to predict current and future impacts on yield. They also will study the quality of selected fruit and vegetable crops in states where they are currently grown and identify future locations that will allow for continued or potentially increased production.

Additionally, the researchers will investigate places that have sufficient water to grow fruits and vegetables, ultimately utilizing climate data to see where such produce can be grown in the future.

“The project will explore if other regions like the Southeast, including Florida, or the Pacific Northwest, could produce some of the fruits and vegetables that are getting harder to produce in California,” Asseng said. The difficulty arises from less water and an overall warming climate, he said.

“The potential for improving the overall sustainability and environmental profile of handling, storing, packaging and market access activities will be studied,” Asseng said.

The team of researchers involved in this project will combine economic and crop models to determine current and future prices and production costs of crops such as carrots, green beans, oranges, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn and tomatoes. Previous research in this area has focused on grain crops such as wheat, corn, rice and soybeans, which are generally grown without irrigation.

“Beginning in 2014, the ILSI Research Foundation identified the importance of improving the sustainability of fruit and vegetable supply chains, from producers all the way to retailers and consumers,” Gustafson said. “Recognizing our commitment to improving nutrition and health through cross-disciplinary research, we are very pleased that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has now affirmed the importance of this critical issue by awarding this new grant.”

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